Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Wheels on the Bus

Someday I hope to write a book The Wit and Wisdom of Children’s Songs. While philosophers turn to high-falootin’ language (which doesn’t include words like “high-falootin’”) to describe deep metaphysical constructs, children’s songs often say it clearer. For example, here we are on the last day of the year, about to turn into 2015 and what better way to capture that than sing,

“Oh, the wheels of the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…”

Grateful to be here to keep riding that bus as the years turn from one to another. It’s quite a wild ride and this past year is no exception, driving high into the hills of euphoria and down to the vales of grief and sorrow. In 2014, this confessing traveling music teacher, the main character of this blog’s plot, had glorious teaching trips to Asia (Taipei, Hong Kong, Manila), South America (Santiago, Chile and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), Europe (Verona, Italy and Salzburg, Austria), Africa (Ghana) and North America (Atlanta, Las Vegas, Louisville, Hartford, Newark, Toronto and Halifax, Nova Scotia). Four continents, ten countries, some 20 workshops and each a delight. Most important of all, I now am TSA Pre-checked approved at the airport in addition to getting my luggage out first! People, it doesn’t get any better than that!

And then the perpetual turn of the years at The San Francisco School. This Fall marking my 40th and my wife’s 41st and my astonishment that I had one of the best teaching Falls of four decades— great kids, great classes, great music. How did that happen? Shouldn’t I be weary and burnt out and longing for weekday golf? I think it helped to have five wonderful Interns witnessing the miracles and then adding their own stamp to the music program with their teaching.

“Oh, the doors of the bus go open and shut, open and shut, open and shut…”

One of the most thrilling opening door has been working with the musicians in my Pentatonics Jazz band. This year, we went on a road trip! Okay, it was only to Fresno, but still fantastic! We also taught various family workshops at SF JAZZ and performed a concert in SF in May. In the same vein, I was thrilled to teach workshops at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center by the invitation of jazz vibraphonist Stefon Harris. That’s an open door I hope will keep opening and eventually include the full Pentatonics group. I love these guys! My only complaint is not enough rehearsals and not enough gigs. Anyone out there want to help change that?

Amidst the pleasure of continuing to ascend the ladder of my dreams came the closed doors of loved ones who left this year. First and foremost, the passing of my Mom three weeks shy of her 93rd birthday. Then my Zen teacher Sasaki Roshi, at 107 years old. And my mother-in-law on the cusp of 90 starting to edge toward the exit gate. Their long lives (107!) help soften the blow, but absence is absence and there’s no way not to miss them. Then Karen’s old college roommate, my cousin, our neighbor, all in the 60’s and 70’s— too close to our age for comfort. On the public stage, more hard farewells to Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joan Rivers, Lauren Bacall, James Garner, Shirley Temple, Sid Caesar, Mickey Rooney, Pete Seeger, Paco De Lucia, Horace Silver, Maya Angelou, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones) and more who kept us entertained, inspired and moved through their writing, music and acting. And so our losses sting and our remembrances warm and isn’t that just the way of life honestly lived? Those seats on the bus so sadly empty, but their presence still palpable if we keep remembrance alive.

“Oh, the babies on the bus go wah!wah!wah!…

Yes, I’m talking about my granddaughter Zadie, who fulfilled her toddler quota of crying fits in each of my five visits this year. But none of it canceled her deep joy, infectious laugh, warm hugs and all the joys of being around her. And as if that’s not enough of a blessing, a second grandchild is on the way!

“Oh the wipers on the bus go swish, swish, swish…”

Finally, much needed rain in California! Too early to call an end to the drought, but it sure is helping. Maybe I’ll take advantage of an indoor life and finally clean my front room.

“Oh, the driver on the bus says move on back, move on back, move on back…”

Yeah, but I’m not listening. I know I need to make room for the young folks coming up and with all the workshops and Intern training and such, I’m doing my part to train them to take the wheel. But I’m not done yet! Keep those invitations coming!

“Oh, the wheels of the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…”

And so farewell to the 2014 bus ride and hopes for more adventurous travels through the landscapes of 2015.

Such Sweet Sorrow

Hard to improve on Shakespeare when searching for language to capture emotion. Just back from taking my daughter and granddaughter to the airport (my son-in-law left early to work) after 10 glorious days together. Sorrow= no morning hugs from a bright-eyed 3-year old eager to enter the day’s adventure. Sweet= the privilege of participating in her way of seeing the world and watching all her breakthroughs in just a little over a week— drawing faces, playing harmonica, hiking two miles (3 times!), astounding us in the Memory game, astonishing us by recognizing every letter of the alphabet. With three teachers and a fabulous Mom and Dad surrounding her 24/7, our house was a miniature San Francisco School with language arts, math, art projects, dancing, African xylophone playing, songs, stories, cookie baking, electric trains, playground plus, hiking and more. As rich for us as it was for her.

Also sweet to note the progress of her little brother or sister incubating in Mama’s tummy. A noticeable swelling there around the three-month mark and wondering how we’ll fit in our house next Christmas. And here’s another type of sorrow unbalanced by sweet— a San Francisco housing market that makes it unlikely that they can move anytime soon closer to the grandparents. There’s something terribly wrong that young people without six- (or seven!) figure paychecks can’t live in San Francisco. Aaargh! to Silicon Valley!

And so the house falls silent once again. No more giggles, screams or patter of little feet. Time to clean and put things back into their empty nest order and that’s fine too. Time to return to our own projects, a schedule not dictated by a nap and the possibility of going out to the movies at night. As the Bible and the Byrds remind us, “to everything there is a season, Turn, turn, turn…” and I’m grateful that this Holiday Season was spent in the company of family and friends. Onward!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Discovery for the Ages

With the temperature below 50 and the winds whipping around the San Francisco hills, we nixed the plan to take Zadie to the zoo. Instead, we crossed the bridge to The Bay Area Discovery Museum. We were a bit dismayed that much of it is outdoors and the winds were no friendlier in Marin. And were a bit discouraged at the beginning— there were xylophones (strangely-tuned, I might add), a storyteller reading books, an art room for painting and drawing. Between the five of us, we had just paid $60 to do the same things we had been doing with Zadie in our home— xylophones, stories, drawing and more! And better, I might add.

But still it was a well-designed and well-thought-out child-friendly place and Zadie did bounce from one thing to the next engaged and entertained. A whole room on circles, a window to paint on, an outdoor Imagination Playground blocks to assemble and more—plenty for a 3-year old to do.

In the art room, I was particularly struck by all those little hands making and shaping, cutting and pasting and assembling, feeling and touching, along with the intense concentration of kids from 2 to 12. So clear that such things are perfectly aligned with what humans are intended to do and have done for multiple millennia. From shaping tools to weaving baskets to building bridges to constructing skyscrapers, “hands-on” living is the way it spozed to be. And of course that includes strumming strings and drumming skins, writing words, bouncing balls and beyond.

So it got me thinking that in some places, at least, we understand that kids need to experience the world through their hands and their handiwork. But what about adults? Why do adult museums just have rooms with paintings for people to look at and not also have some rooms for people to try their own hand at making art? Why don’t concert halls have xylophones in the lobby (or in a separate enclosed room)? Why can’t adults still play with stuff like kids do in public places?

In much of the world, then and now, there are no museums or concert halls, just people making art and playing music every day, ordinary folks with no special labels like “artist” or “musician.” The “Discovery Museum” in such places, for kids and adults alike, is the fields and the forest and the village square— no extra charge. But the price we’ve paid for modern living is this weird compartmentalizing of human possibilities into distinct and discrete fragments so that we pay a price to see someone else’s handiwork or hear their musicianship or enter a space that invites exploration and discovery.

Well, I’m used to museums and concert halls and playgrounds and since we have them, why not open them up a bit further to make them a place where all ages can continue to make and explore and discover with their own two hands.

Just a thought.

Monday, December 29, 2014

(Don't) Mind the Gap

There’s the news you read in the paper and there’s the news we make with the lives we lead. Never has the gap been wider for me, the first lower than I can remember, the second higher than it has ever been. Which one do you pay attention to?

The latest cause for my optimism that the world and human relations are evolving comes from the three-generation family retreat I mentioned last blog. At the top are myself and my peers, unbelievably in our 60’s and even 70’s and the next level down are our “kids,” ranging from 22 to 37 years old. And then 3-year old Zadie and two babies in bellies. At the end of our three days together, while we were waiting for the last person to join the group photo, I couldn’t resist preaching to the gathered assembly. It went something like this:

“I always say at school that we want to raise the kind of kids we want to hang out with as adults. The same for parenting. And you “kids” are just great people to hang out with— smart, funny, caring, helpful, interesting. I’m so impressed that you’re willing to take a few days to hang out with us geezers. So I want to praise all of us parents for doing a good job of raising you and praise all of you for growing into such fine human beings. (And here my daughter Talia chimed in and thanked us for being such interesting and fun people to hang out with. Yeah!).”

When I was coming of age, the generation gap loomed wide indeed. It was probably the last thing on my parents’ mind for them and their friends to “hang out” with me and my friends. And certainly the last thing on my mind! But had it been possible, how great would that have felt? To feel embraced by a community of a multitude of ages that could more or less speak the same language and share the same values.

But back then, at least in my situation, it would have been impossible to talk about race or justice or money or music or religion without uncomfortable silences or heated arguments. It would have been hard to cook together and agree on what good food was. We certainly never would have taken vigorous hikes or bike rides. Back in those days, parents were parents and kids were kids and there was no expectation that the two worlds meet beyond the traditional family gatherings. Now in the era of parents as “friends” to their kids, the expectations have changed. And on the positive side, it did feel in our few days together that every conversation was rich and textured, the young and old alike hiked vigorously, that humor was everywhere and yes, there are certainly different experiences my kids have had that create a small generation gap, but it’s a small fissure, not a giant chasm.

And I, for one, am grateful for that.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Real Life

What happens when the obvious is no longer obvious? If I dare to suggest that we could live a full, hearty and healthy life without a single electronic device, who would believe me these days? Most people say things like, “I don’t know how I ever lived before my i-Phone 5,” meaning that the i-Phone 4 was already the Stone Age and they couldn’t imagine a life so primitive. Gary Snyder was once accused of suggesting we go back to Neanderthal times and he said something to the effect of, “Hey, I wouldn’t mind just going back to the 1920’s (technologically-speaking) when food was just called food and cars hadn’t choked the planet and the mail service delivered letters and ships got you across the ocean.”

At any rate, I’m not about to get into that old tired argument about technology, it’s just the doorway into my own personal reminder that I spent two-and-a-half blissful days up at The West Point Inn on Mt. Tamalpais with four families, no electricity, no computers and all analog games. And it was wonderful. Yes, we did use battery-powered flashlights and propane lanterns and gas stoves, but the accent was wholly on natural intelligence over artificial, smart people over Smartboards, face time over Facebook. I played acoustic piano (formerly known as “piano”), there were a few guitars and ukuleles and always our voices. We played cards, word games, chess, we read books (the paper kind with a front and back cover), we talked, we drew pictures (with Zadie). We walked and hiked at all hours of the day, rocked on the front porch, cooked, ate, cleaned. And okay, I’ll admit it, people’s cellphones worked and sometimes people talked on them or checked messages, but it was to the side of the usual obsession.

My wife and I walked down the mountain to Mill Valley, a hearty two-hour hike, and then took a bus to Sausalito, a boat to the SF Ferry Building, a streetcar back home, slowly re-entering the urban landscape. Once back home, we unpacked, read the mail, got Zadie ready for nap— and then, yes, back to the computer and the 72 e-mails with 4 of substance, a peek at Facebook and off to this blog. My little time “gone fishing” won’t rid of me of these habits and like so many, they have become seemingly essential to my daily business. But perhaps not as much as I think. No one missed me, the world went on and I was happy.

The moral of the story? We social creatures crave community, we physical creatures need exercise, we spiritual creatures long for connection. For most of human history, we got the first by knowing our neighbors, the second by walking and working, the third by learning the land we inhabited. Hiking in the woods with friends was a three-in-one. These couple of days marked a return to “the old ways” and a life with a different thickness to a reality unmediated by screens. Yes, writing this at my computer is also a form of “real life,” but somehow it seems important to remember that ultimately the whole arsenal of electronic connection is mostly a substitute for the real deal. Or at its best, an extension. 

So next time someone says, “I can’t imagine how we lived before…”, send them up to the West Point Inn.